Franz Schubert and the Miro Quartet

September 8, 2013

“Only the good die young!” So goes the cliché. Franz Schubert only lived to be 30 years old. But in that short lifetime he wrote more than 1,000 pieces of music! And along with the vast and varied songs that have made him rightly famous, he wrote fabulous chamber music. We are thrilled to start our 2013-2014 series with an all-Schubert concert played by the Miro Quartet. This relatively young quartet (probably all older than Schubert was when he died) brings the emotional energy, vigour and beautiful delicacy that this music needs.

Who was this enigmatic composer and what was happening in the world around him when he was alive? Schubert, a stay-at-home young man, loved singing. He began his musical life with violin and piano lessons at home and singing as a church choirboy. And he was born into a city, Vienna – a musical capital, dominated by music of Joseph Haydn, Salieri and many others, including the myth and marketing surrounding the recently dead Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart had died close to his 36th birthday in 1791, and Schubert was born in 1797. Anyhow, from his start as a choirboy Schubert quickly developed a great feel for the human voice, as well as for how the piano could support it. And starting very young, he used poetry about the usual subjects: love and loss, the joys of living, tales of the fantastical. And he gave them a personal feeling that made his music different from what had come before, creating an amazing collection of songs. People still sing and love these songs even as we approach 200 years since his death.

Schubert was a young man of his time. He enjoyed the company and support of his family and friends. He was living in Vienna when the monumental personality and artistry of Ludwig van Beethoven was transforming many people’s ideas about musicians and artists, whether by his appearances in wealthy peoples’ salons or performing publicly as pianist and conductor, as well as his shocking output as a composer. It was the dawn of the Romantic age. Keep in mind that Schubert revered Beethoven, wrote his Octet in response to Beethoven’s Septet, and was a pall-bearer at the older composer’s funeral in 1827, the year before his own death in 1828.

Both Schubert and Beethoven lived through the massive military incursion of Napoleon’s expansionist adventures across Europe (including Vienna). And with the fall of Napoleon and the French Empire, the old order was reinstated at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Prince Metternich, an Austrian nobleman, was the architect of that Congress, bringing back the kings. Metternich was so unpopular with the citizens for restoring the old monarchies, and their powers, that he had to be smuggled out of Vienna in a wheelbarrow of dirty laundry to avoid being lynched.

Through all of this, sadly Schubert suffered from health problems. He had always been a bit fragile. The suspicion is that, to top things off, he may have contracted syphilis in the course of his only significant romantic adventure. Before the wonders of modern medicine, syphilis was a death sentence. Some have speculated that Schubert was homosexual, but the evidence is not conclusive. But there can be no dispute that appears in the music is his close familiarity with love and loss.

His song, with the title translated as “Death and the Maiden”, gives its musical theme, then transformed in variations, to the second movement of his great String Quartet No. 14, D810, “Death and the Maiden”. This is a beautiful and emotional work, clearly written by Schubert at what we (after the fact) call the start of the Romantic period for music composition.

I hope you can join us on Sunday, October 13, 2013 at 3:00 pm at the Vancouver Playhouse to hear the Miro Quartet perform both of the early Opus 125 string quartets, as well as the great String Quartet No. 14, D810 “Death and the Maiden”. This is the first in what promises to be another amazing series of concerts in Vancouver!

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